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Honoring the AncestorsAn African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature$

Donald H. Matthews

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199963997

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199963997.001.0001

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The Spirituals

The Spirituals

An African Cultural Narrative Theology

(p.135) Six The Spirituals
Honoring the Ancestors

Donald H. Matthews

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the African American spirituals within the context of an African cultural narrative theology. It first sketches the historical development of African American spiritual theology, with particular emphasis on European Christianity's influence on African American religion. It then cites Nate Shaw's autobiography, All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, to illustrate the complex dialectical relationship between the religious and the political aspects of black life. It also explores the cultural and psychological dialectic of the religious philosophy of African Americans.

Keywords:   African American spirituals, theology, spiritual theology, European Christianity, African American religion, Nate Shaw, All God's Dangers, black life, religious philosophy, African Americans

Africana Narrative Theology and Cultural Context

The narrative of Nate Shaw revealed a continuation of the African-centered meanings that were present in African American spirituals. This Afro-Christian religious synthesis did not take place at the folk level until the Great and Second Awakenings, as the religious style of revivalist movements allowed the expression of feeling that signified contact with the divine world. This emotion-based religion was more appealing to Africans, whose religion featured heightened emotional states as a primary characteristic. Intense feeling bridged European and African religious styles. An outline of the development of African American Christianity would look like this.1

(p.136) Historical Development of African American Spirituals Theology

The SpiritualsAn African Cultural Narrative Theology

In this period, African American religion is largely uninfluenced by European Christianity because of their different starting points for religious practice and beliefs. European religion stressed doctrines and literacy; African religion stressed experience and orality.

The SpiritualsAn African Cultural Narrative Theology

The development of revivalism created a structural bridge that allowed Africans to integrate their own religious sensibilities into the framework of Christianity. American religion now placed enough emphasis on the experiential dimensions of religion that African Americans could develop a synthesis of these two religious perspectives. Some important features of African American religion are a moral perspective that recognized sin (but not original sin), an emphasis on family relationships, themes of freedom, and ideas of personal intimacy between God and nature.

(p.137) The Political Dialectic

The autobiography of Nate Shaw is a powerful example of a narrative that is paradigmatic of the cultural and political dimensions of an African American spirituals theology. My analysis of this narrative revealed a complex dialectical relationship between the religious and the political aspects of black life. Nate Shaw’s narrative confirmed my argument that the dialectical cultural-structural features of the African American spirituals have served as a model or classic religious paradigm for Africans in the United States. This model of spirituals allows us a method for interpreting the theology of African Americans in a way that is congruent with African American styles of meaning.

In the narrative of Nate Shaw, we saw how the religiously interpreted stories related to him by the members of his community, especially his grandmother, helped him gain an idea of the nature of freedom and justice. Shaw’s capacities to care for his family and to think critically about the welfare of his community were developed and enhanced by the religious stories he heard in his community. These stories contributed to his eventual conversion experience, as he finally was able to see the connections his community made between individual spirituality and social protest.

In a burgeoning modern society in which little emphasis was placed on the importance of emotionality, African Americans combined their African ritual heritage with a budding evangelical Christian movement and developed a unique style of being religious that incorporated their political aspirations. Spirituals’ structures of faith and feeling, family and freedom, intimacy between God and nature, and diversity have served as a narrative folk collection that informed the development of theology and ethics in the black community. This narrative form set the parameters for future black theological development.

Black religious thought and ethics may have taken a variety of paths, but they all have been linked to the spirituals’ principles of meaning. Future African American thought and action were variations on these themes from spirituals, with spirituals acting as the deep metaphor that influenced thought and action. The idea that blacks are a “spiritual people” is given substance through recognition that they are the people who produced spirituals.

(p.138) Black theology has suffered because its starting point for the interpretation of liberation often has been divorced from the narratives of black folk. Instead of listening to the people in the pews, black theologians have gravitated toward Eurocentric conceptions of freedom and justice.

Further analyses of other African American narratives that use the theology of spirituals as a touchstone would provide more detailed information about the cultural and political dialectical nature of African American religion. At the very least, this analysis based on spirituals, when utilized by black theologians, literary critics, and other scholars of African American religion and culture, would lead to more culturally appropriate interpretations. Spirituals as a guiding master metaphor, like the blues in the field of black literary criticism, would ground black theologians in an interpretive process derived from African American culture and values.

The application of various critical theories more reflective of Eurocentric concerns would be a second step of interpretation. The cultural-structural methodologies of DuBois and Hurston are examples of scholarship that is attuned both to the contours of black narration and to the concerns of academic theories of interpretation.

The Cultural Dialectic

Shaw’s work was extremely important for the fields of African American history and culture because it gives scholars an idea of black folk meanings in a way that the study of movements and famous figures ill affords. The omission of ordinary people’s experience from our written record deprives our historical self-image of much that is valuable. Historians who write about black Americans have been particularly guilty of this omission. George P. Rawkins, editor of a collection of slave narratives for the Federal Writer’s Project, notes that the black person almost always has been portrayed as a victim “who never enters his own history as subject, but always as the object which abstract forces (have) fought.”

The editor of All Gods Dangers rejected the dehumanizing tendency which has limited our appreciation of what Eugene Genovese calls “the genius displayed by black people under the ultimate test of bondage.” This book presents a figure unique in American autobiography and historical literature: an ordinary black man who speaks in his own voice and is both actor and interpreter of his own history.2

(p.139) All Gods Dangers successfully captures the ethos of African Americans. It is a spiritual ethos that reflects the cultural and political dialectical nature of African American religion and culture. Shaw’s ability to relate the role and relevance of his family members and ancestors is important. He is like the African griot-storyteller who is responsible for the oral history of his people.

One of my claims is that the epistemological foundations of the black community are related to its African past. This African orientation—with its emphasis on family and the ancestors—is seen clearly in the autobiography of Nate Shaw. Perhaps the most poignant and revealing aspect of Shaw’s narrative is found in the passages dealing with the relationships he formed with the younger prisoners. In this passage pertaining to Shaw’s release from prison, we see Shaw reach the full level of spiritual maturity:

I served my sentence out, didn’t owe the state another day of my life. I had warned Vernon and his mother what day to come at me, and they come and got me.…

I was in the room yet bathin when I heard Vernon come up the steps of that buildin—I knowed his footsteps, I didn’t have to look and see it was him, I could hear him. He pushed the door open and I looked at his face. “Papa,” he said, “Papa, it’s time—”

Quickly got ready; and my wife, when I walked out, she was settin there talkin with Mrs. Cook. Got in the car—them prisoner boys hated to see me leave, they hated it. Some of em called me “daddy,” their daddy. There was a heap of em in there that never knowed their fathers; heap of em that never knowed their mothers.3

In prison, Shaw had created an extended family that paralleled and extended his own biological family. Not only was he “Papa” to his natural son, but also he was “daddy” to fatherless and motherless young men. The African concept of extended family was combined with a Christian sense of the family of God in a social situation plagued with family dissolution. The situation of rapetalistic oppression that devastated the black family was met by the ethos of the African American spirituals in which persons of religious maturity became spiritual fathers and mothers to those who need the nurture and guidance that only family can provide.

An Afrocentric narrative theology understands that the black community’s responses to oppression have drawn from cultural strengths (p.140) and structures that are related both to an African past and to their present evangelical Christian beliefs. This approach cannot be reduced either to the black community’s reactions to oppression or to its adoption of Christian values. In fact, the black community has continued and adapted African cultural values and structures of meaning and applied them to their own situation.

In the case of Nate Shaw, we saw that this African American spirituals theological orientation provided Shaw with a deeper basis for actions that were based on the black community’s religious ethos. It gave flesh to the ideas of justice and love that Shaw had heard all through his life as a member of a spiritual community.

The possession theme in the Negro spiritual of North America seems a good deal closer to the vigorous dramatic concepts of the Africans. These songs do not describe a pale exercise. When the spirit captures an individual, according to the song, it is a memorable event. The spirit endows the individual with great powers; it transforms him physically and mentally. Expanding his whole role in life and death, the spirit gives the individual new strength, new direction, new motives and occupations, new capacity for wrestling with life, and above all a new sense of grandeur. The spirit sees to it that the natural world cooperates in all these new grand endeavors and performances.4

In the lives of African Americans, the political and the cultural are integrated into a worldview that has energized their struggle for person-hood and human rights. In the case of Nate Shaw and many others like him, the ethos of spirituals provided an indigenous philosophical basis for the black community’s political activism and social welfare. Black churches may not always have been willing or able to actualize the political dimensions of this dialectical philosophy, but the resources of the spirituals remain as resources for individual and social transformation.

The Psychological Dialectic

I have argued that a more thorough knowledge of West African notions of life and death will help us develop a keener understanding of the religious philosophy of African Americans. This slow acceptance reflects what I have termed the psychological dialectic. I have shown how historians and sociologists of African American religion have found similarities (p.141) in the theological ideas of the African and African American peoples.

It is ironic that black theology is the last battlefield in the development of an Afrocentric black hermeneutic. These battles have been fought and won in the fields of linguistics, history, literary criticism, and family studies. The hesitant use of historical and social science information by black theologians has delayed this process. There has been an unfortunate dependence on a theological style that separates religion from history and philosophy from the social sciences.

Religion has played an important role for black people in their quest to gain acceptance in an American society that defined itself in exclusively Christian or Eurocentric terms. This situation, in which all things black and African were despised or, at best, ignored, has promoted a sense of African and African American cultural inferiority. The black community’s own acceptance of this exclusivist and negative position meant that African American theology and philosophy would also define itself against its African past for reasons of doctrinal or philosophical purity. The narrative of Olaudah Equiano in the period of the Great Awakening, discussed in chapter 4, was an important digression from this almost uniform denigration of African culture by African Americans who had accepted evangelical Christianity. Blacks should not be faulted too heavily for consciously and unconsciously seeking protection from a racist society that already was convinced of the inferiority and “heathen” nature of black religion.

This denial or disgust with the African past, however, was not uniformly true, as I showed in the works of DuBois and Hurston. These early-twentieth-century scholars were willing to claim some sort of positive affinity with their African religious past. This affinity eventually may lead to a full-blown pan-African philosophy in which Africans and African Americans can celebrate their common traditions and beliefs without the need to compare them with Eurocentric ideas.

This ideological battle eventually must result in an Afrocentric black theology. The evidence for African style in black culture, religion, and philosophy by linguists, literary critics, historians, and social scientists is conclusive. It will be impossible to move to a more dialectical view of African American religion if black theologians continue to ignore or deprecate the presence of these Africanisms that have been the “signifying difference” in black religious life.5

(p.142) An Africana Narrative Theology

This work points toward a narrative basis for theological reflection. African and evangelical Christian narratives had the power to create both theological and affective responses that helped African American individuals and communities to order their lives in theologically and socially responsible ways.

The theology of spirituals is a narrative theology that emphasizes human experience. It takes seriously the experiential dimension, in both its personal and social aspects, as the starting point for theological reflection. Joussa expresses this paradigm in this way:

In this crisis situation I have chosen a starting-point that seems solid enough to me: the description and explanation of Christian experience, of the lived, commentated and interpreted experience of believers, of the fundamentals of faith in the state of radical accomplishment through experience itself… on condition, however, that this testimony is referred strictly to the origins of faith, and that it is approached critically, using all the resource of modernity.6

The use of hermeneutic procedures derived from the thick description of the narrative products and stories of religious persons is not dominant in contemporary theology. In the case of black theology, this issue is even more crucial in that African Americans rely more on narratives as their primary mode of theological expression and reflection. Black theologians seldom have had control over the ideological parameters of Christian theology and thus are even harder pressed to develop culturally appropriate modes of interpretation. Appropriate hermeneutic tools are of ultimate importance in an oppressed community’s attempt to develop a sense of its own identity.7

The task for black theologians in the United States is similar to that for African theologians in Africa. Both must develop intellectually responsible theological positions that are responsive to both sides of the cultural dialectic: the African and the European. The worldview of the ancestors and Christian sensibility continue to provide many Africans in Africa and in the diaspora with their primary forms of discourse.

This religious discourse continues to be the roots from which African American culture grows. The political and cultural dialectical processes that led to the creation of the African American spirituals still are at (p.143) work in the African American community. The cosmology of Africa continues to shape African American communal life. The spiritual is the African American classic among classics. It is the root from which modern narrative branches continue to grow. It influences the sort of person one becomes and provides the African American community with norms for behavior and belief.8

Every potter must have clay. The clay of African American religion can be found in the material of African culture, evangelical Christianity, and a social situation that fostered the development of a religious ethos unencumbered by social integration with the larger society. The angry and insistent themes of rap music, which reflect a situation in which more black men are in prison than in institutions of higher learning, continue the structural features of African music with appropriate political and cultural themes.

Black theologians must be able to listen and decode these messages as well, if black theology is to contribute to the struggle for black liberation. By basing the hermeneutic process in African American narration, the interpretive process will find itself in close proximity to the deepest meanings of the black community. (p.144)


(1.) Molefi Asanti, in The Afrocentric Idea (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981)Afrocentricity

(2.) Randell Jarrell, “Review of All God’s DangersTheodore Rosengarten,” Harvard Educational Review 45 (August 1975): 391.

(4.) Alfred B. Pasteur and Ivory Toldson, Roots of Soul: The Psychology of Black Expressiveness (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1982), p. 122.

(5.) Robert E. Hood, Must God Remain Greek? Afro Cultures and God-Talk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

(6.) Jean-Pierre Jossua, “A Crisis of the Paradigm, Or a Crisis of the Scientific Nature of Theology,” in Paradigm Change in Theology, ed. Hans Kung and David Tracy (New York: Crossroad, 1989), pp. 256–257.

(7.) Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 54, argues: “The form of black religious thought is expressed in the style of story and its content is liberation. Black Theology, then, is the story of black people’s struggle for liberation in an extreme situation of oppression.” I agree with Cone’s view concerning the style of black theology. However, I have argued for a greater awareness of African cultural processes in understanding the complexity of black responses to the American situation. Liberation for the African American community has included the right to indigenous cultural expressiveness, whether it be in the form of worship or family integrity.

(8.) James M. Gustafson, Can Ethics Be Christian? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 43–81.